When many people think of North Korea they actually think of one or more of the Kim ‘Dynasty’ Leaders, as opposed to the country itself. This ‘dynasty’, now ruling for seventy-two years and counting, began on 9th of September 1948 with the appointment of Kim Il-sung as President of the newly created Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Though never envisaged by anyone that the DPRK would become a dynasty, on Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994 he was succeeded by this son Kim Jong-il who in turn was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-un in 2011.

While seventy two years seems a long time to some and an eternity to many, Korea (the peninsula) has been ruled by only a handful of dynasties for most of the last two thousand years with two dynasties, of relevance to this entry, lasting almost 1,000 years between them. These were the Goryeo (Koryŏ) Dynasty, which ruled from 918 to 1392, and the Joseon (Choson or Yi) Dynasty which ruled from 1392 to 1910. For completeness of dates, Korea was a Japanese colony between 1910 and 1945 and North Korea was administered by the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1948.

While in Hamhung we visited Hamhung Royal Villa (or, if you prefer, National Treasure no. 107),  ‘retirement home’ and earlier residence of Yi Seong-gye, the founder and first king (as the Taejo of Joseon) of the Joseon Dynasty.

Detail on an entrance gate to the Hamhung Royal Villa

So who was Yi Seong-gye ? A bit of history, if I may?

Yi Seong-gye was born into a military family in 1335 and, like other family members, he soon became a respected military commander in the Goryeo Dynasty.  

By the late 14th century the 400 year old Goryeo dynasty was tottering and on the verge collapse. It was under the virtual control of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty and was internally fractured with various aristocrats, generals and ministers all vying for royal favour. Added to this, it was under ever increasing attack from Japanese pirates and Red Turban invasions, aimed at overthrowing Mongol Rule in China and at the same time gaining advantage in Goryeo (Korea). Red Turban armies, so called because of their tradition of using red banners and wearing red turbans, in Liaodong, China invaded Goryeo in 1359 and 1360, briefly occupying Pyongyang (1359) and Kaesong (1360) before they were defeated.

Yi Seong-gye played in significant role in pushing Mongul Yuan remnants off the Korean peninsula, in overthrowing the Red Turbans and in repelling the Japanese pirates.

When the Ming dynasty took control in China, in 1368, the Goryeo court essentially split in two – one section lead by Yi Seong-gye supporting the Ming Dynasty and the other, lead by Yi’s military and political nemesis, General Choi, still supporting the Yuan dynasty.

When, in 1388, the Ming demanded the return of a significant portion of Goryeo’s northern territory, General Choi jumped on the opportunity and argued for the invasion of the Liaodong Peninsula to reunite that with Goryeo. This was something which Yi Seong-gye vehemently opposed but he was nonetheless chosen by King U to lead the invasion, essentially anticipating that he would fail and his influence in court would diminish.

When Yi Seong-gye arrived at Wihwa Island, on what is now the Yalu River separating North Korea and China, he decided to revolt rather than risk almost certain defeat. He turned his army back and headed for the capital, Gaesong (present day Kaesong), where he defeated forces loyal to the king, lead by General Choi whom he proceeded to dispose of. Yi forcibly dethroned King U in a de facto coup d’état but rather then take over himself he placed King U’s son, Chang, on the throne. After a failed attempt to restore U to the throne Yi had U and King Chang both put to death, replacing Chang with the puppet King Gonyang who reigned until 1392 when Yi became King Taejo and the Joseon (Choson or Yi) Dynasty began.

King Taejo – his only known remaining official portrait currently hung in Gyeonggijeon Shrine in Jeonju, South Korea

Not all of Yi’s time was spent on protecting Goryeo from foreign attack or in positioning himself to take over as king. He found sufficient time for the procreation of eleven off-spring, with two consorts, between 1354 and 1382 – eight sons and three daughters  – and a couple more daughters with other acquaintances.

When visiting his Hamhung villa, our guide was keen to tell us that, post his ‘retirement’, his prowess in bed continued unabated though there is no record of further off-spring.

Having secured himself on the throne and moved the capital to Hanseong (present day Seoul) it was time for King Taejo to turn his mind to which of his eight sons (the daughters being ineligible) should succeed him to the throne. Given how his fifth son, Yi Bang-won, had contributed to his rise to power he seemed the obvious choice. Alas, there was huge mutual animosity between this son and key allies of his father who successfully conspired to convince Taejo that he should appoint his eighth, and favourite son, as Prince Royal, successor to the throne.

One of the King’s allies, Jeong Do-jeon, then conspired to kill Yi Bang-won who found out about the plan and killed the Prince Royal and his brother (that is both sons born to the King’s second wife, who had recently and unexpectantly died, with Yi Bang-won later implicated). Shocked and angered that his sons were willing to kill each other for the throne and still mourning his wife’s passing King Taejo abdicated (1398), crowned his second son Yi Bang-gwa king (King Jeongjong) and forlornly left for his Hamhung Royal Villa never, apart from one short frosty meeting, to connect again with his son, Yi Bang-won.

Our local guide at the Hamhung Royal

Our guide explained how the former king had ordered the killing of number of messengers sent to Hamhung by Yi Bang-won to broker a peace between father and son.  This alleged lopping off of envoys became the basis for the Korean saying, 함흥차사 (Hamhungchasa) which roughly translates as ‘King’s envoy to Hamhung’ and is used to refer to a person who goes on a journey and is never heard from again.  More recent research suggests that it wasn’t the former king that was to blame for this futile loss of envoys but rather other misfortunes had befallen them on their journeys.

(A couple of years later, in 1400, King Jeongjong voluntarily abdicated, having previously pronounced Yi Bang-won Prince Royal. Yi Bang-won finally assumed the throne as King Taejong).

Having outlined some of the history above, our guides showed us around the Royal Villa with a particular emphasis on the largest building, the former kings bedroom, and a pavilion in which, our guide explained, the king entertained, and presumably was entertained by, a never-ending supply of concubines. Based on the account given by our guide, he was somewhat of a randy old bugger who wasn’t afraid to look up beyond the hemlines of his lady attendants.

The ‘entertainment’ pavilion

I was somewhat taken aback by some of the things our guide said about the former king, given the normal modesty and demureness of the guides I had encountered to this point – except of course if they wanted to launch a diatribe against the U.S or, more so in 2018, Japan in which case there was no holding back.

The main/bedroom pavilion
Hamhung Royal Villa – building

Given the guide’s utterances, it will come as no surprise that the Kim ‘dynasty’ regard Yi Seong-gye/ King Taejo as an usurper and traitor to the legitimate Goryeo dynasty.

When Yi Song Gye died in 1408 he was buried in Guri, outside Seoul and the villa became a shrine.

Our guide pointed out that the original buildings in the villa complex were destroyed during Japanese invasions in the 16th century and that what we were looking at today – apart from an inner gate destroyed by the Americans during the Korean war – were 17th century reconstructions.

It is worth noting that during the Korean War blanket bombing of Hamhung (and the rest of the country) resulted in 80-90% of the city being destroyed together with tens of thousands of deaths after the US Air Force policy of not targeting civilians was changed on 5 November 1950 by General Stratemeyer, U.S. Far East Air Forces commander, to ‘destroy all other targets including all buildings capable of affording shelter’.  Perhaps it was an oversight that the villa complex was not destroyed or perhaps bomber flight crews were aware that it was an historic building not affording shelter to anyone.

Hamhung Royal Villa garden

While admiring the small gardens our guide pointed out a four hundred year old pine tree assuring us that if we had our photograph taken by it would live to be one hundred.  

400 year old pine tree – take a photo by the tree and live to 100

Dinner was calling. Time to go.

My next North Korea (2018) – Hamhung review– HERE (coming)

Start reading at the beginning of my North Korea (2018) – Hamhung reviews – HERE


7 thoughts on “Hamhung Royal Villa and Yi Seong-gye

  1. We had the same guide I believe (although I don’t have a photo of her to check) – certainly we were told the same anecdotes about the king! And yes, I too was surprised but I got the impression she had learned that foreign tourists found such tales amusing and like most DPRK guides was keen to please 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes I would imagine you did have same guide, aside from this they would all work from same script anyway (as anywhere in the world). I think all the guides become attuned to what Western visitors like and don’t like, especially when it came to jokes.

      Liked by 2 people

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